Posted by: csdailyblog | May 10, 2012

Environmental Science in the Classroom and in the Field

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Last Thursday and Friday afternoon, I visited Environmental Science class both to help out with garden tasks and to give students some pointers on a recent assignment: scientific posters.

With spring upon us, weeds are springing up, some just harmless nuisances and others not-so-harmless invasives. Students were dealing with both sorts last week during Environmental Science and Field Instruction classes, which combined for a joint afternoon period. At the Lowenstine Estate on Black Oak Lake, we’ve been working to eradicate crown vetch on the waterfront for a few years now. Students visited the estate with science teacher Andy Milbauer to plant native species in the areas that the crown vetch has relinquished. Students also worked in our campus garden with Stewardship Coordinator Jean Haack, putting down cardboard in new raised beds as a weed barrier and then filling the beds with a mix of compost and soil.

Meanwhile, inside, students experienced some interdisciplinary instruction. First, they worked with Art Teacher Nancy Schwartz on watercolor techniques as they prepared to observe and then paint butterfly eggs, larvae, and, eventually, adults. (Asking students to draw and paint what they observe in science class not only helps them develop art skills, it teaches them to observe specimens especially closely and carefully.) Students also worked with science teacher Robert Eady to prepare rearing chambers for painted lady caterpillars and transfer one or two tiny eggs into each container. Finally, they worked on drafts of scientific posters in groups. As they collaborated on the poster drafts, Robert and I visited each group to check their progress and to give them pointers on accepted professional standards for scientific posters. Using posters to communicate in an effective manner requires a challenging combination of skills in art, design, and writing; an understanding of the scientific poster genre; and knowledge in the subject area being addressed. So, while a poster project might sound like a less rigorous academic assignment, it is in fact very challenging, especially because it is somewhat unfamiliar: students are accustomed to demonstrating their academic knowledge through more standard written products like lab reports and essay questions on tests.

Because my areas of expertise as a teacher include research and writing skills, I passed on tips in those areas to students, and also explained to them why Conserve School administrators are particularly interested in the topics they are addressing in their posters, which include the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools criteria. I discussed with students why we’re interested in applying for the award, why the application is difficult to complete, and why we needed students to help us gather the necessary data. Students have been collecting data on the efficiency of hand dryers, for example, comparing the performance and the energy utilization of the two types of dryers we have at Conserve School with a new type of hand dryer developed by Dyson. Students are also examining dorm lighting, recycling, the waste water system, vehicle use, and other aspects of Conserve School’s operations.

Leadership Team members (Head of School Stefan Anderson, Director of Outdoor Programs and Residential Life Cathy Palmer, Director of Admissions and Residential Life Phil DeLong, and me — Assistant Head of School) are looking forward to viewing the completed posters and discussing with students their findings during a poster session scheduled in a few weeks.

Reviewing criteria for scientific posters with students has been good practice for Robert and me, since we recently sent in a proposal for a poster to be presented at the 2012 Monarch Biology and Conservation Meeting at the University of Minnesota and just received word that our proposal has been accepted. (If you go to the university meeting reservation page, you can see a photo of a monarch taken in the Conserve School garden.)

Spanish Teacher/Academic Dean Kathleen O’Connor assisted with the afternoon garden work. Read more about these activities on her website.

-Mary Anna Thornton, Assistant Head of School

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